The Soft Shells of Summer

Checking the peeler pot was a river ritual.

(Illustration by James Albon)

I was probably in my 30s before it dawned on me that I could order soft shell crabs in a restaurant. In the summers of my childhood, soft shells came from the York River, where we’d anchor a slatted wooden peeler pot a few oar-strokes from the beach. 

A peeler pot is an incubator, a place to hold peeler crabs—“busters” as the watermen call them—before they wriggle out of their hard shells to become, briefly, soft shells.   

The size of a coffee table, the pot had a flat wooden rim that kept it afloat and the crabs submerged. When we caught peelers with our crab nets, we’d add them to the pot. Then, with each tide, we’d row out to check the peeler pot for soft shells.

The trick is to check often and, when the moon is full, at night. A soft shell remains soft—both defenseless and delicious—for only a few hours before the new shell begins to harden and the crab becomes a good-for-nothing paper shell, inedible. Once it’s pulled from the river, a soft shell won’t harden. 

We’d arrange our catch in rows in the bottom of an open, shallow cardboard box lined with damp newspaper and store them in the refrigerator, where they’d spend the afternoon blowing tiny bubbles from their mouths.  

My river friends and I would spend our days carrying long-handled crab nets, like rifles, as we hunted for crabs hiding in the eelgrass off the beach, or from the end of the pier, where they’d cling to the barnacles on the pilings, a few feet below the water’s surface. We’d circle the pier, heads down, checking one piling after the next. 

If we were feeling ambitious, we’d walk the two blocks to the York River Yacht Haven, where the boat slips offered the promise of endless crabs for any ten-year-old with a net and a bucket. 

A lightweight, aluminum-handled net is best for slipping into the water, just below the crab, then yanking upward against the piling, to scoop it into the net. If you weren’t quick enough, the crab would skitter off sideways before disappearing under the water. 

A peeler was a lucky find. Turn it over, and you’d see the apron, tinged red. Even luckier was a double crab. The male—a jimmy—cradles a female, sometimes soft. If she was a peeler, we’d add her to the pot to wait for her to shed.  

Soft shells are eaten, legs and all. Cooked right, they’re crisp, tender, and sweet. To dress them before cooking, turn the crab on its back and remove the apron, a triangular flap that peels back like a pop-top on a soda can. Carefully lift up the shell to remove the gills underneath. Then, using kitchen scissors, snip a straight line across the face to trim off the eyes and mouth. 

When I encounter soft shells on a menu these days, it feels a little like cheating. Everything tastes better when you’ve had a hand in cultivating it. And for us, there was nothing better than a soft shell, panfried in a cast iron skillet, on the day we’d plucked it from the York River. 

Soft Shell Crabs
  • 8 soft shell crabs, dressed
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1⁄3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter

Prick the legs and claws of each crab with the tines of a fork. Season the crabs with salt and pepper, dredge in the flour, and shake off any excess.

Warm the olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the butter melts, place the crabs back-side down, working with a few at a time so as not to crowd the skillet.

Cook until golden, 2-3 minutes. Then turn, and cook the other side until golden, 2-3 minutes longer. Put finished crabs on a serving platter and keep warm in a very low oven while you cook the rest.  Serves 4

Recipe from Virginia Living contributing food editor, Patrick Evans-Hylton.

This article was originally published in our August 2022 issue.

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